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German film now

Leonie Naughton

Leonie Naughton is author of That Was the Wild East: Unification, Film Culture and the ‘New’ Germany, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2002 and Fellow in Cinema Studies at the University of Melbourne.

One of the greatest misconceptions about German film is that the term German comedy is an oxymoron. Outside Germany many people tend to associate this cinema with brand name directors who used to produce turgid films, populated by tormented characters who have really bad sex. Yet at the German box office, it’s indigenous comedies that draw crowds, and in the 1990s at least, comedies of the sexes, like Rossini—Or the Deadly Question of Who Sleeps with Whom (Helmut Dietl, 1997), were among the most profitable local productions.
The BMW Festival of German Films organised by the Goethe Institut showcases a number of recent comedies, some whimsical, some major box office hits: it also provides Sydney and Melbourne audiences with access to award-winning German dramas, shorts and low budget features. This year the festival opened with full houses for Good Bye, Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker, 2002), a mischievous comedy highlighting the absurdities surrounding the fall of the Wall and East Germany's bungled initiation into capitalism. Here Becker works adroitly within the genre of the “unification comedy.” Evidently millions of Germans are amused by the suggestion that unification is, after all, something of a joke: Good Bye, Lenin! broke the box office barrier of 6 million domestic ticket sales, something local productions rarely do.

Becker is among a group of recently emergent directors, based in Berlin. His modestly budgeted features have picked up a bag-full of prizes. National film prizes are always prestigious, no matter where they are awarded, but in Germany they carry with them added benefits that would make Australian independent filmmakers drool. Apart from opening up more funding agency doors and coffers, German film awards usually carry with them prize monies unheard of in this country. Some prizes, like those awarded Good Bye Lenin!, carry with them hefty monetary bonuses of about $5 million ( index.html).

Becker elicits superlative performances from his cast, which includes the acclaimed East German actor Michael Gwisdek and the young prize winning talent, Daniel Bruehl, who was guest of the BMW Festival last year and star of the deliciously comic no-budget, film school feature, No Regrets (Benjamin Quabeck, 2000).

Good Bye Lenin! sees Bruehl in the role of Alex, a young East Berlin man adapting to life in unified Germany as his ailing mother lies comatose in hospital. When she regains consciousness, she is unaware that the Socialist regime has collapsed and the ideals of the state have been abandoned and discredited. In an effort to avoid the risk such a major shock may have upon her health, Alex strives to maintain the fiction of the GDR, literally restaging aspects of domestic life under the old regime for the benefit of his incapacitated mother. He provides her with an illusion of continuity by reconstructing what has been dismantled. Alex goes to ingenious lengths to console his mother by rationalizing the increasingly conspicuous presence of commodities and signs of corporate capitalism, previously deemed ‘degenerate’.

The festival highlighted the debut work of other emerging filmmakers who have succeeded in navigating the funding agency networks of the Federal Republic. Their films emerge with a remarkable vibrancy despite tortuous dealings with state funding agencies. Suelbiye V Guenar’s, Karamuk (2002) was one such impressive feature debut. Her drama focuses on the turmoil and yearnings of a rebellious teenage girl, Johanna, and presents a sensitive, compassionate portrait of her attempt to secure a cultural identity.

A package of film school shorts, titled Next Generation 2003, was also included in the festival and initially selected for screening in Cannes. Some of the shorts, like Cluck Cluck (Olaf Encke, 2001) and Knight Games (Sven Martin, 2003), are assured in their reliance on absurdist humour and wild flights of fantasy. The Day Winston Ngakambe Came to Kiel (Jasper Ahrens, 2003) takes a comic swipe at xenophobia, effectively satirising colonialist stereotypes and assumptions.

One short, Fetish (Richard Lehun, 2002), received a lucrative federal short film prize valued at around $60,000. Yet this was one of the weakest in the package, falling into the same trap as any number of Australian film school shorts. And that is depicting “old people” as lunatics who are either a) eccentric in a harmlessly regressive and endearing way, or b) haunted by some dark secret that provides opportunity for heavily stylized flashbacks, oozing with ambience and menace.

With its suburban focus and whimsical recollection of a fleeting incident from childhood, Oliver Held’s Spring (2003) may invite comparison with the award winning Australian short, Cracker Bag (Glendyn Ivin, 2003.) Spring brims with the manic energy and irrepressible curiosity of childhood, auspiciously evocative of the student films of Jane Campion. Like many other films screened during the festival, Spring is nothing short of tantalising.

BMW Festival of German Film 2003, Melbourne, Sydney 21-31 August.

Leonie Naughton is author of That Was the Wild East: Unification, Film Culture and the ‘New’ Germany, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2002 and Fellow in Cinema Studies at the University of Melbourne.

RealTime issue #57 Oct-Nov 2003 pg. 20

© Leonie Naughton; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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